The Prince William Board of County Supervisor approved the “Devlin Technology Park” Bristow data center campus rezoning, via a 5:3 vote, at 4 a.m. Wednesday. Despite citizen outcry, the vote fell along party lines, with Democrats all voting in favor of the rezoning, and Republicans voting against it. The vote was held during a lame-duck session.
"We come up here and we state the same thing week after week, and I just hope you will listen, but I think you guys are losing sight of what the residents really want,” said speaker at the public hearing. “You have taken a lot of money from special interests.”
Supervisors cast their votes after listening to approximately 70 in-person speakers and just as many online speakers. Almost all pleaded with supervisors to reject the project, saying it was incompatible with surrounding residential areas and would negatively affect their quality of life.
Bristow residents were joined by supporters, many from Gainesville. They wore black shirts that said, "Battle of Bristow, vs. Stanley Martin."
Only three Prince William residents and three union representatives spoke in favor of the project. Union reps said it would bring good jobs. But residents felt that was a plea for more special interests.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was the biggest donor to Democratic supervisors during the campaign season, and asked their members to show up to a rally before the meeting.
Stanley Martin also gave tens of thousands of dollars to fund the Democrats campaigns.
Stanley Martin Homebuilders originally planned to build 514 homes on 270 acres near Devlin Road in Bristow. However, in 2022, the homebuilder came back to the board asking to rezone for light industrial.
Since the property was adjacent to the Hunter and Mango data centers, flipping the property in order to build data centers made sense to the company.
However, the property is also surrounded by single-family residential neighborhoods, such as Sheffield Manor and Victory Lakes. It also backs up to two elementary schools: Bristow Montessori School and Chris Young Elementary School, making the property less compatible.
Neighbors argued such a large data center, around 9-11 buildings, would bring loud construction noise, constant data center hum, air pollution from diesel backup generators and a strain on the electrical grid, all incompatible with residential living.
They worried it would affect children in school and people trying to sleep at night. They worried about their home values.
One man said he never thought he’d have to choose if he would have to choose between his children’s health or keeping them in school with their friends.
And even though there would be other nearby data centers, residents did not think that poor rezoning decisions should be continued. Adding another large data center would only compound the problem; soon, Bristow will be mainly industrial, they said.
Changes to the Application
When the Devlin Park rezoning came before the board last year, residents’ biggest concern was the proximity of the campus to Chris Young Elementary School and small buffers
This time, Stanley Martin increased buffers, and proffered 85-acres behind Chris Young Elementary School that the county could use as parkland. Stanley Martin additionally offered $5 million for the county to build and manage a park.
However, Brentsville Jeanine Supervisor Lawson-R argued the park proffer could be overturned since a data center and a park are unrelated.
The board knew nothing about where the buildings would be placed on the campus. They were only told the buildings would be approximately 80 feet high.
“There is no master plan, just a big box drawn on a map,” Lawson said.
The applicant had not held a community meeting since last year. The office of sustainability did not review the application, and although the plans had changed, they were never sent back to the Planning Commission to reevaluate.
One sticking point for Lawson was that the applicant did not request a Special Use Permit nor Zoning Text Amendment, one of which is required for data center rezonings outside the data center overlay.
“Why did we make all the other applicants do all the extra requirements and incur the extra fees?” she asked. “Why is Devlin Park different and special?”
The general conscientious among residents is that Stanley Martin wanted the project approved while Ann Wheeler was still the county chair and since the chair sets the agenda, she allowed it.
Gainesville Supervisor Bob Weir-R was emphatic the board was circumventing policy, and called the handling of the application “arbitrary and capricious.”
He also said the property was left out of the overlay area, "expressly to protect residential neighborhoods."
Coles Supervisor Yesli Vega-R called out the supervisors who were silent on the process. “I want to be very clear as to what is taking place tonight.”
Speakers Don't Hold Back
Behind the scenes and in front of the mic, residents spoke candidly to the supervisors. They said everyone knows the project is incompatible with residential development, and voiced frustration that none of the eastern end supervisors seemed to care about them, their neighborhoods, schools or families.
Vita Carroll of Nokesville called data centers a “dark cloud over Brentsville’s head.” She blamed five of the supervisors for rushing an incomplete applicantion.
“Over a hundred thousand dollars the incoming board has received (from Stanley Martin)... “It's absurd on its face,” to rush through an application during a" lame duck" session.
“Five or six residents (in your district) will be concerned (about a project) and you will take it seriously and deny it.” said Kathy Kulick of the HOA Roundtable, a group which represents thousands of Northern Virginia residents.
Kuklick also argued data is really “heavy industrial,” since they have flamable “tractor trailers” size generators. They should not be in people's back yards.
Residents said they could not trust that the board would hold the developer to their promises. They referenced Village Place in Gainesville where data centers are clearly in view of people’s balconies and the only “buffers” are one foot trees.
Dr. John Lyver a computationist, said that at NASA they always said it is better to fix the problem when you spot it. After the fact, you may not be able to fix it.
Lyver, who was worried about noise carrying from the data centers, said it is doubtful the county will be able to fix their mistakes.
A couple of people expressed how the actions of the board have made them no longer wanted to be Democrats.
“I am absolutely disgusted. I was born and raised a Democrat…I have to beg that you please let me live in my house in peace,” said Margherita of Bristow.
The woman said she is an African American whose family has “been here before slavery,” but now supervisors want to essentially take her away from her.
“Everyone who votes for this lives in the eastern part of the county,” she said.
Many residents said they are deciding what to do. They love their community. Why should industrial blight be forced upon them?
Chair-Elect Deshundra Jefferson made an appearance in the atrium, but, to some people's chagrin, she did not speak during the public hearing.
A Tale of Two Rallies
Before the meeting, union workers held a rally at the same time as residents. Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were encouraged to attend the rally.
Afterwards, they moved towards the resident's rally and appeared to interrupt it. It became a shouting match between the two groups.
Union members shouted, "we live here too."
None of the brotherhood spoke at the meeting save the representative. Perhaps more would have stayed if they would have been able to get a better time slot. Non-county residents were sent to the back of the line, so they didn't get to speak until after midnight.
During the Meeting
During the meeting, most of the public speakers spent their time in a back conference room. It made the long meeting more tolerable as they could chat and snack.
The room had a live feed of the meeting and folks were able to cheer, boo and gasp, which is not allowed in the board chambers.
When a speaker left the podium, they magically seemed to appear back in the room (due to a televised delay). The person was usually met with cheers.
People in the room were of different political affiliations but all were united in support of residents, homes and schools free from data center development.
They thanked Supervisor Jeanine Lawson for her support throughout.